Film Review: Deepsea Challenge 3D

The man who masterfully navigated <i>Titanic </i>returns to the deepest blue sea&#8212;this time in a real-life adventure, starring himself as the protagonist.
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No stranger to the majesty and mystery of our planet’s oceans—Titanic is only the tip of the iceberg in a filmography that also includes The Abyss (1989) and such well-received documentaries as Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005)—James Cameron is not just a filmmaker whose favorite setting is the sea. At this point, it’s more accurate to think of him as a seasoned sailor, a knowledgeable amateur oceanographer and, most of all, an accomplished explorer. Who better to sit in the cockpit of a one-man, state-of-the-art submersible, in a documentary about a dive to the deepest ocean depths?

Of course, it was Cameron and a crack crew who designed and built said submersible—the Deepsea Challenger—for the express purpose of reaching the floor of the Mariana Trench, a seven-mile-deep gash at the bottom of the sea, just off the coast of Papua, New Guinea. And of course, there was never any question that it was Cameron who’d be at the helm. But it isn’t too far into this film that he proves himself the right man for the job. Leaving the nuts-and-bolts directing to a trio of veteran documentarians, Cameron is freed up to throw himself into the thick of the action, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Whether getting his hands dirty while overseeing every facet of building a submersible craft unlike any other, or going “Wow” like a kid at the wondrous sights that reveal themselves right outside his porthole, Cameron is clearly having a high-adrenaline, literally death-defying blast—while demonstrating that he knows exactly what he’s doing, every step of the way.

The chronicle of the expedition itself is well worth the wait. But before we set sail, there is a bit of unnecessary re-enacted history, featuring Jim Cameron as a towheaded lad, building make-believe submarines out of cardboard boxes and lowering mice in mason jars off a bridge into a creek. Later there is more re-enactment, with two actors portraying the point men of a 1962 Jacques Cousteau-led trip into the Mariana Trench. The Cousteau sequences are relatively seamless, and the faux Cameron scenes do vividly establish his lifelong love of the ocean, as well as his keen scientific curiosity and his insatiable thirst for adventure. But even at its most useful, the re-enactment device can’t help but be clunkily distracting—if only because it makes one pause to take note that, well, it isn’t real.

Things improve once we move on to the building of the Deepsea Challenger—a fairly detailed sequence that manages to convey the enormous complexity of this enterprise, without bogging us down with too much techno-geek information. At times, this has the feel of one of those Discovery Channel workplace shows—think “Deadliest Catch” in dry dock. But someone (say, Mr. Cameron?) had the good sense to enliven the proceedings with a recap of Cameron’s long, post-Titanic Hollywood hiatus, during which he essentially quit his “day job” to be a “full-time explorer.” This interlude includes footage from various documentaries of actual expeditions—including a dive to the wreckage of the German warship Bismarck and a return to, yes, the Titanic. And if there were any lingering suspicion that Cameron’s “full-time explorer” thing was the whim of a dilettante who could afford such expensive hobbies, this footage is convincing evidence to the contrary.

Cameron advances his adventurer cred to a whole new level (literally) on the Challenger expedition. Setting sail on his boat the Mermaid Sapphire, Cameron and crew, including wife Suzy Amis Cameron, make various stops en route to Papua, most of them for test dives to iron out the kinks—of which there are many. The first test, which takes the Challenger all of one meter deep, is pretty much a washout. Flipping switch after switch, Cameron radios back to his crew that everything that could have been wired backward is wired backward. Even he has to laugh at the totality of this false start.

Subsequent dives go better, although none are without glitches. On the other hand, each reveals an array of mind-boggling sea creatures, any one of which could serve as a monster prototype for Cameron’s next sci-fi epic. Cameron is moved to observe that nature’s “imagination” far exceeds our own. While watching a large, diaphanous sheet of living animal matter float by, one can’t help but agree.

The world we see is not dramatically enhanced by the 3D experience. But the 3D does have its moments, when exotic underwater flora and fauna seem to get right in your face. Suffice to say that after this, you will know what it looks like to be afloat amid a school of plankton.

Along with its visual wonders, the film engenders some genuine suspense when, on one of its deeper test dives, the Challenger’s systems start failing, one at a time, leaving only one system operational. Fortunately, it’s the one that will enable Cameron to resurface. And while there’s never any doubt that he will make it back, just vicariously living this moment with him is enough to produce a chill.

Further suspense accompanies the climactic dive, after bad weather forces delays that lead to a problematic night dive in high winds and churning whitecaps. After that frenzy of flailing cables and crunching metal, the actual dive might seem eerily peaceful—if not for the unsettling exterior camera shots of this tiny one-man sub plummeting, mile after mile, to the ocean’s sub-basement. And the view down there is, in a word, otherworldly: ethereally stark, devoid of any detectable life, almost ghostly. Cameron compares it to being on the Moon. The Moon should be so barren.

This is only the second time that a human has descended to this deepest part of the deep. The first was 50 years ago, when that Cousteau team made the dive. Their only problem was that, in their 1960s vintage sphere, they landed with such a thud that it kicked up a thick cloud of ocean-floor sediment, preventing them from seeing anything outside their windows—much less recording it for posterity. But Cameron had no such issues. With the Challenger’s hover capability, he was able to glide just above it all, kicking up very little silt, while capturing lucid images of a heretofore inaccessible, wholly unknown world. Those images are as indelible as they are striking.

Almost as an afterthought, a closing onscreen graphic reports that the Challenger’s various dives uncovered and brought back 68 species new to science. That statistic might be the most eye-popping aspect of this film. All by itself, it establishes James Cameron as nothing less than a world-class explorer.

This documentary shows us how he got there.

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